The digital Iron Curtain
If you were a child or a teenager in America during the late 1980s and early 1990s, chances are you fondly remember playing games like Super Mario Brothers, Contra or The Legend of Zelda on your NES. If you lived in post-Soviet Bloc countries, you probably weren’t so lucky, however, as Nintendo didn’t officialy sell their products there until about 1994. That’s not to say that you’ve never played Super Mario Brothers, Contra or The Legend of Zelda—actually, you’ve probably spent many evenings trying to beat those classics on your Dendy. Or maybe it wasn’t a Dendy but a Pegasus (that’s the one I’m most familiar with as a Polish gamer). Or a Terminator (I got this when my Pegasus broke down). Or a PolyStation (I’ve also owned this one).
Most readers are probably baffled by those names—and for a good reason. Every single console I’ve mentioned is simply a cheap pirate knockoff of Nintendo’s most famous product. But most people in Central and Eastern Europe didn’t know about it—those ‘famiclones’ was the only thing they knew and when the original entered the market, it was treated just as another variant of Pegasus, only more expensive.
The famiclones were a cultural phenomenon in the Second World the same way Famicom was in Japan and NES was in America—in common language their names became synonymous with gaming and they’re some of the biggest staples of 90s nostalgia. People with only passing interest in games might not even recognise them as knockoffs—during its heyday, Pegasus (a famiclone popular in Poland) was advertised on TV and so was Dendy (this one gained a huge cult following in Russia).
Bridging the technology gap
On paper, famiclones shouldn’t have been successful for one simple reason: while Famicom entered the market in 1983 and its American version followed in 1985, Dendy was first released in 1992. Those were the Super Nintendo days—much closer to the release of Sony’s PlayStation than to NES. And it’s not like we didn’t have anything better: gamers in Poland already knew both the Amiga and the now-ubiquitous IBM-compatible PCs. And yet new copies of famiclones could be bought even in the early 2000s (often in deceptive packaging—PolyStation’s box included screenshots from PlayStation games like Final Fantasy 7).
There are two reasons behind the success of Pegasus, Dendy and the likes. The first one is obvious—the accessibility. Just like the consoles known in the West, famiclones were plug-and-play machines that, unlike microcomputers, didn’t require any special skills to use. The consoles were as much for the enthusiasts as they were for the casual gamers.
The second reason behind the popularity of famiclones was their price. Products like Pegasus were quintessential Chinese knockoffs (and many of them were actually made in China), cheap and disposable. For a modest sum of money, a box containing a console and all the necessary peripherals could be bought. The only other equipment required was a television, and most people already had one before buying a console. As the cartridges were also cheap knockoffs (more about that later), buying a game was never a problem—and once you’d finished it, you could go to a local marketplace and trade it for a different one. The ’90s were also a perfect time for such products: as the markets opened after the fall of communism, importing electronics from Asia became feasible—and it was still legal, as the communists didn’t really care that much about intellectual property, and changing the law would take time. In Poland, for example, piracy was completely legal until 1994 when copyright law was passed.
As time went by, better consoles and personal computers became affordable and the famiclones started to vanish from the market. By that time, however, they had become important parts of post-Soviet Bloc gaming culture, so their decline was a slow one. Nowadays, the consoles have disappeared from the mainstream but they’re still popular among retrogamers.
Famiclones could play the same games as the original console. They were usually made to be comaptible with Japanese Famicom-style 60-pin cartridges. (Keep in mind that while they copied the actual program pretty well, they rarely used anything other than generic hardware—don’t expect being able to save your progress in pirated Zelda.) Most of them were simply pirated versions of original NES and Famicom games—sometimes even rare ones like Wai Wai World 2 or Duck Tales 2—although there are two other kinds of cartridges American readers might not be familiar with.
For a slightly higher price (compared to other pirate carts, not to the original releases), one was able to buy ‘multicarts’, the most well-known of them, at least in Poland, being The Golden Five, an unofficial Codemasters anthology consisting of Ultimate Stuntman, The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy and two games from the Big Nose the Caveman series. As time went by, multicart producers started to compete with each other in ‘who can fit more games into one cart’, which led to the creation of insane products like 9999999 in 1. Putting so many games in a Famicom cartridge is, of course, impossible – in reality, the same three or four games just repeated endlessly (sometimes the programmer included a script that switched a few random variables around so that, for example, Mario 567 would start from a different level and Mario 914 would have a different color palette). Still, the games were usually playable, so 9999999 in 1 was actually more enjoyable than the infamous Action 52.
The other kind of unusual cartridge was a bootleg game. They were usually produced by Taiwanese Sachen or Chinese Waixing and generally were proof that being able to copy an existing game does not mean that you have the skills to make a new one (that is, when they weren’t simple hacks of existing games, like Monsters in My Pocket with Batman taking the place of the main character). The quality, or lack thereof, of those games went beyond the usual unlicensed shitfest. They were the epitome of design and programming incompetence. Interestingly, those games were still being made in the 21st century (maybe they still are) and managed to disappoint fans of more contemporary franchises like Pokemon.
Most famiclones used the same technology as the original console, but miniaturized so that it could fit on a single chip (that’s the reason for ‘NOAC’ or ‘NES-on-a-chip’ being sometimes used as a synonym for ‘famiclone’). This allowed the same internal components to be repackaged into different cases so that products visually resembling other popular consoles like Sega Genesis or PlayStation could be made easily. More complex famiclones sometimes had built-in cartridges (usually those crazy multicarts) they’d run if there was nothing present in their cartridge port.
Generally speaking, the replication of Nintendo’s technology was usually imperfect. A famiclone could produce graphical glitches in more visually complex games and wasn’t able to take advantage of features like additional sound chips. It also wasn’t compatible with some of the more obscure peripherals; that is not saying much, however, as the likes of PowerGlove didn’t work too well even on the original NES. On the upside, they never included Nintendo’s lockout chip, so the unlicensed games could be played easily.
Famiclones often came with their own peripherals (usually two joysticks, a lightgun and sometimes also a keyboard). They broke as easily as the consoles themselves, although its worth noting that they sometimes included features absent from the official products—for example, default Pegasus controllers featured two turbo buttons.
Objectively speaking, famiclones were shit, there’s no denying that. They were badly made, they ripped off someone else’s product and they were often packaged in an intentionally misleading way in order to confuse the less tech-savvy customers. But objective quality is not the notable thing about famiclones.
What is important about Pegasus, Dendy and all that went in their footsteps (and, by extension, in Nintendo’s footsteps) is their place in the history and culture of gaming outside of North America, Japan and Western Europe. While the motivations behind the creation of those consoles and the tactics used to sell them were far from noble, those gaming systems represent the change brought about by the end of the Cold War and the fall of the communist dictatorships in Europe. Like everything that falls under the label of Eastern European 1990s nostalgia, the famiclones are the product of the strange, difficult time they were made in—the time of unimaginable changes in the global political and economic landscape.
The decline of famiclones happened when the technology in the developing world had more or less caught up with the technology in the developed world. But the mark they made in gaming history remains (and it’s just a drop in the ocean of things)—for better or worse—making those worlds different.
Famiclone section in Ultimate Console Database
Bootleg Games Wiki – a lot of information on unlicensed games and multicarts
NES in Russia – a short retrospective on Dendy
Pirate market gallery – photos of famiclones and pirate carts sold in Russia and Vietnam
Famiclone Shelf – a blog about famiclones
Buying pirated carts – a brief guide to bootleg and multicart trading
- EMU-NES Carts Gallery – a large gallery of original and bootleg cartrdiges